Sunday, 23 December 2012
re-record, not fade away: the stone tape
If there was a stone circle of 1970s British TV dramas in which modern technology came up against ancient forces, then Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, which finally comes out on DVD next month, would be the big monolith at the circle's centre. It led the way for Children Of The Stones, Changes and The Omega Factor, but as a horror where the chills were all the more unsettling for being based in science The Stone Tape stands apart.
Nigel Kneale had made his name in the 1950s with the pioneering BBC sci-fi gripper of Quatermass in its serial incarnation, so it should have been no surprise that his contribution to the BBC's annual Christmas ghost story in 1972 was nothing like a standard ghost story. An electronics research group, led by a bombastic Napoleon in a safari suit (Michael Bryant) in the twilight of an affair with his computer genius prodigy (Jane Asher) move in to a derelict house, Taskerlands, and discover by the chance the potential for a new recording medium in the haunted stonework of the basement. There is a ghost in The Stone Tape, a Victorian undermaid, but she's just the bait. The hook is the story of the primal forces within the stone that can't be contained, either literally by being recorded (on tape), or in power, and the havoc unleashed as the scientists try to harness those forces so that they can outdo the Japanese and, of all things, a rival firm out to build the first electronic washing machine.
There are plenty of disturbing resonances to enjoy here, from the eerie green-on-black oscilloscope signals that dominate the opening titles to Jane Asher's petrified expressions, the series of trapdoors to the narrative that burrows into ever-more abstract and arcane territory, the mixture of Victorian gothic and modernist sci-fi that's amplified by the set designs and sound effects (BBC Radiophonic Workshop working overtime again), and the undercurrent of ideas about modern capitalism, gender relations and even the definition of ghosts. For more on those, see Breakfast In The Ruins or the anthology extract from The Twilight Language Of Nigel Kneale by Dave Simpson at The Paris Review.
The real power of The Stone Tape though, is in its unseating of expectations and stereotypes. The unseen forces can't be called definitively malign, despite events, the scientists are not so obviously the bad guys or good guys, and the story, though dominated by men, is fuelled in every sense by the sole female character, as much by her intelligence and resolve as by her dissolving nerves and terror. It's like a code within a code within a code, The Stone Tape, a Russian doll as a computer programme, endlessly unravelling.